Service Animals, Assistance Animals, Therapy Animals—What’s the Law?

Guide dogs and service dogs have helped individuals with disabilities navigate life for decades. Now you also see assistance animals, therapy animals and emotional support animals. What’s the difference and what’s the law?

Many people legitimately need service, support or therapy animals, while others use the “therapy animal” name and even fake vests and registries to sneak their pets into public places. So what rights do users of service animals have?

Employment discrimination: Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination in employment. If employees or prospective hires need a service animal, you cannot prohibit them from having the animal at the work-site. You can ask the nature of the services the animal performs, but you cannot ask about the nature of the person’s disability.

Discrimination in public accommodations: Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed. As with employers, owners or managers of public accommodations can ask about the nature of the services performed by the animal, but not the nature of the person’s disability.

The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself. Guide dogs are one type of service animal, used by some individuals who are blind. Service animals also assist persons with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities. Examples include:


  • Alerting persons with hearing impairments to sounds.
  • Pulling wheelchairs or carrying and picking up things for persons with mobility impairments.
  • Assisting persons with mobility impairments with balance.


The ADA does not limit its definition of disabilities to physical disabilities—psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities also qualify. The ADA National Network says, “Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), interrupting self-mutilation by persons with associative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.”

To qualify as a service animal, two conditions must apply: the person must have a disabling condition and the animal must be trained to perform a specific task or tasks. If they meet the definition, the ADA considers animals service animals regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.

Service Animals vs. Assistance Animals and Therapy Animals vs. Pets

Some people use therapy dogs or emotional support dogs. These animals may provide therapeutic or emotional support to a person with a mental health disability, such as PTSD. They are not trained to perform specific tasks; instead, their mere presence has a calming effect on their owner.

The FHA, Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, allows therapy or emotional support dogs to be kept in housing with pet restrictions. If the owner has a verifiable disability, the animal is a “reasonable accommodation.” HUD specifically states that “while dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.” Title II and Title III of the ADA do not view emotional support animals, therapy animals and comfort animals as service animals. This means that, outside of housing and air travel, owners of therapy or emotional support animals have no legal right to bring their animals into places where animals are prohibited, even with a doctor’s letter.

The ADA and other anti-discrimination laws are complex. Running afoul of them can lead to discrimination claims, fines and negative publicity. A good liability insurance policy can help protect your business from the cost of defending discrimination claims and paying damages, if any—please contact us for a policy review.

The Liability Coverage Every Business Needs

There are insurance coverages that all businesses need, some that all business should consider, and some that you need only if you have special risk exposures.


Need to Have

Home-based business insurance. The standard homeowners insurance policy excludes liability arising from “business pursuits.” If you have a home-based business, you can buy a rider to add business liability coverage to your homeowners policy, but coverage is limited. With the possible exception of daycare operators, most successful business people will need one or more policies designed especially for businesses.  Continue reading “The Liability Coverage Every Business Needs”

Credit Insurance: Should You Buy It?

Credit protection

You call your credit card issuer, and the customer service representative tells you about a “special offer” for a “payment protection plan.” What do these plans cover, and do you need one?

“Payment protection plan” is another name for credit insurance. Continue reading “Credit Insurance: Should You Buy It?”

Your Guide to Critical Illness Insurance

Critical illness insurance provides coverage over and beyond what your health insurance policy covers. Do you need it?

Critical illnesses can strike anyone, at any time. Critical illness insurance helps you deal with the unexpected costs of these health problems. According to estimates by the American Heart Association, this year alone 600,000 Americans will experience their first stroke, 785,000 Americans will have a heart attack for the first time and about 1.4 million will be diagnosed with cancer. Continue reading “Your Guide to Critical Illness Insurance”

Risk Management for Small Business

Every organization’s business plan should include a section on risk management. If your business plan doesn’t address your risks, take a look at the following areas to start. Continue reading “Risk Management for Small Business”

Accident Coverage: Helping Insureds Cope with the Unexpected

Many people think they’re most likely to get injured in a car accident or on the job. But home-related injuries cause nearly 20,000 deaths and 21 million medical visits each year. Unintentional home injuries cost Americans at least $222 billion per year in medical expenses, with an additional $165 billion in medical costs from injuries that possibly occurred in the home. Are your employees financially prepared for the toll an accidental injury can take?

Continue reading “Accident Coverage: Helping Insureds Cope with the Unexpected”